By Michele Vowel, Fort Campbell CourierNovember 16, 2010
A walk through Fort Campbell's Task Force 3-502nd Memorial Tree Park this summer sparked a myriad of memories for Canadian Janice Johnston Nikkel.
She and her husband, Peter Nikkel, visited the memorial in late July on their way home from vacation to their farm in South Langley, British Columbia. They wanted to share its history with their children: Tori, 15, Lincoln, 13, Virginia, 11, and Lewis, 8.
"This is part of experiencing something their mom was a part of many years ago," Janice said. "They've heard me talk about it, but this personalizes it. It makes it real for them. This will definitely leave an imprint in their mind forever."
It was 25 years ago this winter that Janice started a campaign to establish the living memorial for 248 101st Airborne Division Soldiers and eight crew members that perished in a plane crash Dec. 12, 1985, at Gander, Newfoundland, Canada.
The paratroopers assigned to 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, had served on a peacekeeping mission in the Sinai and were on their way home for the Christmas holiday.
Janice was only 15 when she heard the tragic news of the crash. The Canadian teenager from Oakville, Ontario, wanted to reach out to the families of the fallen Fort Campbell Soldiers.
"I wrote a letter to our big Toronto Star newspaper and said I would like to donate my babysitting money to [buy trees] to plant as a living memorial to these Soldiers who died in our country," she said. "I thought 'I'm 15 years old, what can I do'' But it was something."
Word of the memorial idea and Janice's $20 donation to the cause spread globally. World leaders and celebrities commended the teen's efforts with phone calls, telegrams, letters and $1,700 in donations.
"Your suggestion to plant a forest with maple trees at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, base for the 101st Airborne Division, is certainly to be commended," wrote Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in a personal letter to Janice dated April 15, 2006. "Not only will the forest stand as a memorial to the men and women who lost their lives in this tragedy, but it will also serve to remind us all of the need to continue their mission of peace."
Officials at Fort Campbell set aside a special 2-acre plot along what is now Screaming Eagle Boulevard for the grove of trees.
"I'm very humbled by the whole thing because there was so many people [who] made it happen," Janice said. "It took one letter. Sometimes that's all it takes."
Among those who helped Janice was Frank Lockyear, president of ReTree International. Lockyear had heard about her efforts and helped her make arrangements to plant the grove of maples and for the special ceremony, according to the Sept. 16, 1986, Toronto Star.
Sheridan Nurseries supplied the trees without charge, the article read.
On Sept. 20, 1986, Janice's dream for a living memorial became a reality. The 16-year-old and her family traveled from Canada to Fort Campbell to formally dedicate the grove of Canadian sugar maple saplings during a special memorial ceremony.
Dedicated were 256 trees representing the 248 Soldiers and eight crew members who died at Gander.
"We want to show our appreciation for the men and women who gave their lives while serving as defenders of my country, as well as your own," Janice said during the ceremony, according to the Sept. 25, 1986, issue of the Courier.
She offered her condolences to family members and shared that it was the Johnston family tradition to plant trees in honor of loved ones.
Maj. Gen. Burton Patrick, commander of the 101st Airborne Division at the time, noted that the gift from Janice and Canada honored those who died.
"To be forgotten is to die in vain," Patrick said. "Today [Janice and her fellow Canadians] have seen to it that our fallen Soldiers will not be forgotten."
The division commander and Janice read the inscription on a bronze plaque she had bought to mark the grove site. The plaque reads:
"Donated by the People of Canada to the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) in memory of the 248 courageous Soldiers who died in Gander, Newfoundland, December 12, 1985. Each tree stands as a living memorial. The forest testifies to their united commitment to global peacekeeping. Blessed are the peacemakers. St. Matthew 5, verse 9."
"This memorial will stand forever in memory of all the good things that our Soldiers stood for in life, and that's the way it should be," Patrick said.
Janice, Patrick and two 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment Soldiers, Sgts. Donald Norup and Juan Perez, unveiled the monument before the crowd. Family members were then invited to spread cups of mixed Canadian and American soil at the bases of several freshly planted saplings.
Regarding the dedication, President Ronald Reagan sent a Western Union Mailgram on Sept. 19, 1986, to Patrick. In the note, he commended Janice's vision for the memorial.
"My special commendation goes to Frank Lockyear of ReTree International, to the Louisiana-Pacific Corporation and to Janice Johnston whose dream of an appropriate tribute is here fulfilled," Reagan wrote. "Let these trees stand as a visible reminder that America is the land of the free only because it has been the home of the brave."
As the 25th anniversary of the Gander tragedy approaches this December, Janice's return to Fort Campbell's Memorial tree park in late July held special meaning.
"This is absolutely amazing to me," she said, craning her neck to get a better view of the canopy of branches and leaves.
During the walk through the grove, Janice marveled at the trees.
"It was very touching to see an actual name attached to every tree," Janice added, noticing the markers at the base of each tree. "Each one represents someone who died for your country."
Her oldest daughter was the same age Janice was when she wrote the letter to establish the living memorial.
"I'm really proud of my mom," Tori said. "It's really sad what happened. I'm glad that they planted trees. It's a good memorial for them."
Retired Maj. Gen. John Herrling, 2nd Brigade commander at the time of the Gander crash, said in a recent interview that the trees are a fitting memorial to those who perished.
"It's a wonderful way to honor those that died at Gander," he said. "It's a growing thing. It's a living thing. Those trees will be there for years and years and it will be a constant reminder to not only family and friends but a constant reminder for Soldiers serving at Fort Campbell the sacrifice that some of the predecessors made back 25 years ago."
Before departing the installation for Canada, Janice thanked the Soldiers of the 101st "for continuing to serve and protect."
"To the families who lost a loved one 25 years ago, my hope was that this Memorial Park would be like a living memorial testifying to the sacrifice your loved ones made in service for your country," she said. "We wanted you to know that as Canadians, we cared. They are not forgotten."